Conflict Escalation: How It Works


Samuel Charap, Senior Political Scientist

Escalation, or the broadening of the scope of a conflict, can occur for two broad sets of reasons. First, there are accidental escalation and second, the sort of deliberate escalation when one side decides to up the ante consciously. Accidental escalation can occur as a result of a misunderstanding or misinterpretation, or a miscalculation. Deliberate escalation are the kinds of steps that one side could take in retaliation for steps taken by the other.

Accidental escalation can be mitigated through mechanisms like military to military communications that allow for effective crisis communication among the actors involved on the ground. And in fact, the United States has taken that step and set up a so-called deconfliction mechanism with the Russian military to potentially address any misunderstandings. But it's harder to prevent intentional escalation. If the Kremlin has decided that it wants to retaliate for the steps that have already been taken, there's little that can be done to prevent that.

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